A Geologist Bets on a North Sea Gusher That May Never Come

When many oil companies were hunkering down trying to save money, Robert Trice, a geologist, spent four months on a drilling rig in the rough waters west of Scotland’s Shetland Islands. He wanted to make sure he was there to make quick cost-cutting decisions, and he could not wait to see the results.

“Getting early geological information is worth its weight in gold,” he said in an interview.

The effort turned out to be worthwhile. A well, in an area called Lancaster, that Mr. Trice’s company, Hurricane Energy, drilled on, produced oil at the very healthy rate of 15,000 barrels a day, suggesting the presence of very promising resources.

Mr. Trice was taking advantage of the sharp drop in costs of drilling to pursue his sometimes quixotic 12-year quest to prove that undiscovered troves of oil still lie in British waters — if you just know where to look.

Most oil below Britain’s North Sea and elsewhere is found trapped between the grains of porous rock, like sandstone. Mr. Trice is, instead, drilling into granite formations almost three billion years old. Granite is crystalline and impermeable, but Mr. Trice is betting that myriad cracks or fractures in the rock contain large volumes of oil. These oil plays are known as “fractured basements” because the ancient rocks containing the oil are usually deep in the earth’s crust.

People who know Mr. Trice often use the words “visionary” and “determined” to describe him. A former employee of Royal Dutch Shell, Mr. Trice has been working on his project since 2005, spending about $200 million. The effort has been long, and has brought criticism from some of his investors.

Mr. Trice estimates that there are 2.3 billion barrels of oil trapped in the rocks at Lancaster, of which more than a half million barrels can be extracted. If these estimates are correct, Lancaster would be larger than any oil field developed in British waters over the last decade.

“The scale of oil that is down there is very large compared to everywhere else in Europe, “said Kevin Swann, an analyst at Wood Mackenzie, the energy consultants.

If Mr. Trice is successful, he could also open a new way of thinking about exploring in European waters. Hurricane also made two other discoveries last year in areas called Halifax and Lincoln, adding to others made in previous years. The company has locked up five exploration licenses around the finds that could prove valuable.

“If we demonstrate that these rock types are viable in the U.K., then this is potentially the tip of the iceberg,” said Mr. Trice, who owns 1.5 percent of Hurricane. “This is potentially billions of barrels.”

Lancaster was discovered in 1974 by Shell, but only recently has technology advanced enough that an explorer like Mr. Trice can hope to accurately map the best fracture zones and then drill horizontally across them, tapping oil. Only a coterie of industry experts work on these formations.

“It is a specialist play, “ said Roy Kelly, an executive at Kerogen Capital, a private equity fund that has invested more than $100 million in Hurricane, and a Hurricane board member. “You need specialists like Robert and his team.”

Hurricane is a tiny company with only 15 employees, but it has been one of the most active drillers in Europe. Other companies have reduced their exploration budgets to cope with lower oil prices. Mr. Trice drilled four wells last year when only 14 exploration wells were drilled in British waters.

The west of the Shetland area is the frontier of the British petroleum industry. The fields of the North Sea, long one of the world’s most prolific oil regions, are to the east and north of Scotland. With those resources depleted, operators have been moving west.

While explorers are excited about the west of Shetland because there has been much less drilling there than in the North Sea, remote locations and harsh weather mean that working in the area is expensive. The region has largely been the province of well-financed companies like BP, Chevron and Total rather than start-ups like Hurricane.

“It is an incredible story what Hurricane has achieved, “ said Ian Linnett, head of equity services at RPS Energy, an independent consulting firm hired by Hurricane to assess the company’s discoveries.

Mr. Linnett compared Hurricane’s exploits to last year’s shocking win by Leicester City of the Premier League, Britain’s top soccer competition, a team that is usually outgunned by bigger, free-spending teams.

Small companies like Hurricane take risks to make breakthrough discoveries and then large companies buy stakes in the projects or take the small companies over, but although Hurricane has looked for partners to provide the billions of dollars that bringing its discoveries to market would eventually require, the big oil companies have declined to bite.

Analysts say that while fractured basements have produced oil over long periods in places including Vietnam and Egypt, they are unproven in Britain. These plays are also geologically complex and risky, and people in the industry say it is very difficult to evaluate how much oil they actually contain. Even though the test wells have been prolific for a short time, that performance does not guarantee that the field would function as well long term. One major worry is that the wells will suck in water from underlying aquifers into the fractures, complicating operations.

“Nobody has jumped in because the technical risks are too high at this early stage, “ said Chris Cornelius, a British geologist and oil entrepreneur.

To win over skeptics, Mr. Trice is moving ahead with a major test of whether his theories work. He has lined up a floating production platform — essentially a ship’s hull bristling with oil production equipment — and plans to produce from two wells, starting in 2019.

To pay for this project, Hurricane, which is listed on the London AIM small company exchange, raised more than $500 million this year. The stock price fell sharply before the fund-raising, angering some investors. In September, for instance, the Crystal Amber Fund, a major shareholder in Hurricane, wrote in its annual report that it was “baffled” that the company “chose not to discuss or consult” with the fund on the tactics it used in rounding up the money. Hurricane says the funds enabled it to “stay on track.”

Despite such stumbles, Crystal Amber and other investors say that Hurricane’s discoveries offer potential rewards. The question is whether Mr. Trice and his team can actually prove that their ideas work.

“I think there is generally a very positive view of Dr. Trice in terms of his geological prowess,” said Sanjeev Bahl, an oil analyst at Edison, a market research firm. Hurricane’s management has “less of a track record in funding large oil and gas development projects, ” he said.

Mr. Trice says he is confident that the pilot project will make money:around $100 million a year if oil averages $50 a barrel. “There is some real money in this,” he said. “It is not just a science experiment.”

 

 

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